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No relief: Lack of government help leaves fire survivors relying on donations

A man in a camoflauge jacket and a faded orange Jack-o'-Lantern hat rakes ashes.
Beatrice Bankausate
The Columbia Missourian
Shawn Knight, a Wooldridge village resident, cleans the remains of his burned home on Friday, Dec. 9. For now, Knight is one of only a few people who returned to live on the land.

Shawn Knight has spent much of his time clearing up the remains of his home since a fire ravaged roughly half of Wooldridge in late October.

He has been sleeping in a tent next to where his home used to be. With the community’s help, he was able to get a trailer last week, but it lacks power and water.

Knight and his neighbors have explored options to fund temporary housing and recovery efforts: government agencies, disaster relief organizations and insurance companies.

But after the damage assessments were done, they realized those options were limited.

“The government hasn’t done anything,” said Knight, who is now relying on community and nonprofit aid.

The destruction did not meet the definition of a major disaster that would qualify for funding, said Mike O’Connell, a spokesperson for the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA).

A Major Disaster Declaration process is just not designed for a situation in which there is terrible damage but to a small group of people, O’Connell said.

“We are on our own,” said Kelly Murphy, the mayor of Wooldridge. She said the small town does not have enough funding for recovery relief.

With little government assistance, volunteers and community members have stepped up. That kind of help is becoming more crucial as the number of smaller disasters like the one in Wooldridge increase as the climate changes.

No relief

Disaster recovery is initially considered to be a local issue. The result is that climate shocks — unpredictable events that impact a community — that are assessed to be of “small scope’’ like the Wooldridge fire often stay at the local level.

The process to get a Major Disaster Declaration by the president begins with a State of Emergency Declaration, which is based on local requests for assistance or the likelihood that such a request will be forthcoming. Gov. Mike Parson did not declare an emergency in this situation due to the scope of the incident, O’Connell said.

The state does not have a dedicated budget specifically for disaster recovery, O’Connell said. An emergency declaration can activate the Missouri State Emergency Operations Plan to send direct aid from the state to local jurisdictions and organizations.

The federal designation is reserved for when the disaster exceeds state and local officials’ capacity to respond. In a medium sized state like Missouri, the threshold to qualify is around 400 uninsured homes destroyed or with major damage, O’Connell said.

A fire blazes, silhouetting trees and wreckage.
Clayton Steward
The Columbia Missourian
Fire blazes at a residence on Saturday, Oct. 22, on Main Street in Wooldridge, Mo. A mixture of high winds and low humidity caused the fire to quickly spread to the structures in the village.

Without a Major Disaster Declaration, FEMA cannot award public assistance for government agencies and nonprofit efforts, or provide individual assistance to Wooldridge residents for emergency shelter and limited home repairs.

This also means that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds long-term rebuilding through its Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery program, cannot respond as a direct source of funding to affected communities or individuals, said Brian Handshy, public affairs official for HUD region 7, which includes Missouri.

In localized emergencies, “the government relies on people having insurance,” said Conne Burnham, emergency management coordinator for the MU Extension Program.

Most Wooldridge residents, like many disaster survivors, lacked insurance. Only two of the eight homes destroyed in Wooldridge were insured, according to the report Murphy filed with the Missouri Department of Insurance.

Burnham, who previously worked for SEMA, stressed the importance of home insurance for emergency recovery, although she acknowledges survivors often need additional aid.

Resident Jessica McComb said in an online post she had insurance, but it will not cover most of the possessions that were in the home and other recovery expenses.

So she turned to community help through GoFundMe, just like the Knights.

A kid rides a bicycle in red shorts, a t-shirt and sunglasses. Behind him, a fallen piece of wreckage smolders and the background is obscured by smoke.
Margo Wagner
The Columbia Missourian
Titus McComb, 9, rides his bike past the remains of homes on Sunday, Oct. 23, in Wooldridge. The McComb family lost pets in the fire, including a dog named Olaf.

Heather Burton, Murphy’s sister, is also collecting funds from a GoFundMe that will be later distributed to the residents by Burton and the mayor, according to the description of their fundraiser.

Along with community generosity, Wooldridge residents rely on nonprofits and faith organizations for shelter and rebuilding.

Nonprofits helping Wooldridge survivors include the American Red Cross, Catholic Charities, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, Central Missouri Community Action, Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri and Columbia Second Chance fostering, among others.

“It goes back to the old days where, you know, before modern days like we are now, where the community and the family and the religious groups and the volunteer groups pull together to help and assist,” O’Connell said.

Emergencies in small rural towns like Wooldridge that are often ineligible for state and federal recovery aid are defined by experts as “low-attention disasters.”

Low-attention disasters are more likely to happen in rural areas because, with a low density population, the damage does not reach the threshold, said Dianna Bryant, director of the Institute for Rural Emergency Management at the University of Central Missouri.

O’Connell said that he sees how the government criteria can seem unfair and difficult for victims of a disaster that did not meet the threshold, “but it’s just the way that the state and the federal government are set up.”

Four burnt mailboxes sit on the ground with other debris. One of the mailboxes has "106 Main" on it.
Lily Dozier
The Columbia Missourian
Charred mailboxes sit on the edge of Saline Street in Wooldridge. Resident Justin Wood said the roads into town were closed to prevent non-locals from driving around to examine the damage. Areas of the village were still smoldering more than a day after the fire, and there was hazardous debris including broken glass and electrical lines.

Murphy said that after the eight houses in Wooldridge got destroyed, the tax base will shrink, making it even harder to fund basic services.

“We don’t have what Boonville has, we don’t have what Columbia has for a bank account,” she said. “And now we’re going to lose, because all these people have quit paying taxes after they go, so we’re not going to have the tax revenue.”

A history of underfunded recovery

The fire in Wooldridge is the most recent catastrophe in Saline Township, but that part of Cooper County has had a decades-long problem of flooding, including the Great Flood of 1993 and recent flooding in 2019.

The climate shocks have removed or shrunk some of the communities in the township over the years. Two towns, Washington and Houstonville, were wiped out by flooding, while Overton and Gooch Mill became very small communities, according to the Cooper County Historical Society website.

Wooldridge’s population and housing availability has also shrunk over the years, going from 39 houses in 2010 to 21 in 2020, according to the Cooper County Hazard Mitigation Plan of 2022.

Three people sift through a pile of ashes. Two on the left sit in the pile and the third, on the right, stands. The only distinguishable items in the wreckage are pieces of scrap metal.
Nicole Gutierrez
The Columbia Missourian
From left, Matthew Colbert, Drew Alexander and Heaven Maggard dig through ashes to find their friends’, Cody and Kelsey Knox, wedding rings Wednesday, Oct. 26, in Wooldridge, Mo. Cody Knox said the rings are the one thing he wanted to recover.

After the 2019 flooding, Wooldridge residents grappled to recover without individual recovery aid, because Cooper County was only eligible for public assistance, which benefits community resources but not individuals.

Former President Donald Trump approved Missouri’s request for a Major Disaster Declaration allowing for public and/or individual assistance after the flooding in the state. But only 22 out of 114 counties in Missouri were eligible for both benefits.

“It can be one town and this happens,” said Burnham about being ineligible for individual assistance. “Or it can be a large, large area, several counties, and still not get it because the population is so small in those areas.”

Volunteers fill the gaps

During and immediately after the fire on Oct. 22, first responders worked in collaboration with the American Red Cross.

While firefighters put out the flames, with help from the Missouri State Highway Patrol aerial surveillance, volunteers from the American Red Cross set up an emergency evacuation shelter for residents and neighbors in the community.

“We assisted 21 individuals, and what we do is immediately work to try to make sure that we can get there if they have eyeglasses or medication or any of that kind of stuff that they need immediately replaced,” said Rebecca Gordon, the executive director of the Central and Northern Missouri chapter.

A man sends a bowling ball down a lane. He wears a blue t-shirt, slacks and a tan hat. In the background is a mural and another woman bowling.
Lily Dozier
The Columbia Missourian
Joey Jones, a resident of Glasgow, Mo., bowls on Saturday, Dec. 10, at California Lanes in California, Mo. Jones, who lost his home to a fire in 2010, coordinated the Wooldridge benefit event because he felt he could understand what the community had gone through. “When you pull up, you see smoke coming from your home that you’ve worked all your life to get and make yours … it just broke my heart; it completely devastated us,” Jones said. “I’ve kind of been in the same spot as these people … I feel it was a perfect opportunity for me to give back.”

The organization was also asked to provide breakfast, snacks and coffee the next morning to the firefighters, many of whom are also volunteers. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, nearly 73% of all Missouri firefighters are volunteers.

Ben Webster, the Fire Program supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said that they employ 700 field staff for the whole state, so they rely on volunteers from the fire departments to assist when there is an emergency.

Fire departments in Missouri can affiliate with the Firewise USA program which has a community wildfire protection plan for mitigation and fire emergency response, Webster said.

“We don’t have staff, enough staff, to go out and do all these plans for all the counties and communities within the state of Missouri, it has to have that community participation and buy-in to make the program work,” he said.

After the fire in Wooldridge was extinguished and the immediate needs for the community were met, first responders left the area and the 21 individuals assisted by the American Red Cross were transferred to partner organizations to help with their recovery efforts.

Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri is directly helping 10 of those residents whose houses were damaged or destroyed, said Alissa Marlow, the senior director of programs and services.

A group of about 20 people sit and stand at a bowling alley. They are all facing the same direction, watching people bowl. There is a poster advertising Bud Light in the background and a neon Coors Light sign in the background.
Lily Dozier
The Columbia Missourian
People from around mid-Missouri participate in a bowling tournament for a benefit event to raise money for Wooldridge on Saturday at California Lanes in California, Mo. Many participants expressed they were excited for the opportunity to get together and support a good cause. “It just blows my mind that these people will just come together in such a short time,” said Joey Jones, who helped coordinate the event. “It shows the love and support in the community to help everybody grow back bigger and stronger.”

Some of the survivors decided to rebuild in the community, while others are relocating in nearby areas of Cooper County, Boone County or surrounding communities, Marlow said.

Knight said he would like to rebuild in the community. But the area is a floodplain which has many requirements if they were to rebuild.

“I think the only option that we have is to try and relocate just because they’re in the process of determining where the floodplain ends and what the restrictions are and all that stuff,” he said.

Catholic Charities USA is helping fund relocation and temporary housing, but it is hard to find a safe, sanitary and secure place due to lack of affordable housing, Marlow said.

As climate changes, disasters increase

The absence of government funding for this recovery comes at a time when emergencies like wildfires are becoming more frequent due to climate change, displacing more residents from their communities.

Wildfires do not burn in Missouri as they do on the West Coast because in the Midwest the humid climate keeps the woody or vegetative material on the ground at higher moisture percentages, Webster explained.

But the environmental conditions were different during the Wooldridge fire, with the town experiencing an extreme drought in October, based on the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Climate change has further altered the natural pattern of droughts, making them more frequent, longer and more severe, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Five people sit at a bar at a bowling alley. They are clapping for something out of frame. One woman records on her phone, and another looks like she might cry. There is a paper towel roll on the bar and several bowling balls beneath it.
Lily Dozier
The Columbia Missourian
From left, Wooldridge city board members Taylor Grimm Wood, Alexis Nixon and Kelly Murphy listen as Joey Jones reads out that the event was able to raise almost $3,000 for Wooldridge on Saturday at California Lanes in California, Mo. Nixon talked about how when disasters like the Wooldridge fire happen, people expect there to be aid services to back them up, but there are not. “The safety net is things like this. It’s community,” Nixon said.

Bryant said that under the reality of climate change, the federal government is demonstrating that it can quickly exceed its ability to respond to one or two major disasters in a year — at least in the federal budget cycle.

Rural communities are often the ones left without disaster relief funding due to the threshold, she said, although urban settings may begin to have more low-attention disasters as a consequence of climate change.

“Rural communities will be more resilient in dealing with climate change and helping each other and working as a collective,” Bryant said. “Because they do it all the time anyway.”

Catholic Charities’ continuing efforts include advocating for legislation that would “put some money aside to assist low-attention disasters,” Marlow said.

“In the Midwest, in Missouri, along with our neighboring states, that’s what we see,” she said. “We see a lot of these low-attention disasters that don’t have the federal or state resources.”


For the audio transcript, clickhere.

Claudia Rivera Cotto is reporter for the social justice beat and an investigative and data journalism master’s student at the University of Missouri.
The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.
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